Thursday, June 11, 2009

Planes, trains and automobiles...

I am a huge fan of trains, els, subways, streetcars, cable cars, basically any kind of people-moving object that sets its wheels to tracks. To me they embody the very essence of the urban experience.

Hang over the platform of a Powell-Hyde cable car slowly making its way up Russian Hill on a lovely San Francisco evening and you will agree with me. Ride aboard the toy-like trams that navigate the Ringstrasse in Vienna. Walk around America's grandest public space, Grand Central Terminal at rush hour and watch the commuters darting around trying to catch the early train home to Connecticut or Long Island. Descend into the depths Moscow's Metro and experience the most beautiful subway in the world. Or ride the L through the Loop.

If someone gave me the opportunity to design a city from scratch (heaven forbid!), it would be filled to the brim with all kinds of railed people movers, streets for automobiles would be an afterthought.

The blog post from Rochester, N.Y. that I brought up earlier brings to mind so many issues about what is wrong, not only with with the way our cities are designed, but what's wrong with us as well. The movement to design cities to serve the automobile instead of the other way around has created a mindset that the car is essential to any normal kind of life. And we embrace that notion wholeheartedly.

I'm as guilty as anyone. While we live in a city that has adequate public transportation, I love my car and life without it would be a tremendous burden for my family and me. Even though my daily commute hardly ever involves the car, grocery shopping, weekend outings, vacations, all revolve around the four wheeled beast. Take it away and things get, interesting. But still possible.

The same cannot be said for virtually anywhere else in the States, save for other big cities. This issue was brought home to me several years ago. My parents after retirement moved to the Phoenix area. My dad didn't feel comfortable driving after his second stroke so my mom did all the driving. Typically she would put 60 to 80 miles per day on the car just getting about town. After my father's final illness and death, my mother developed macular degeneration which rendered her legally blind. Ironically, in her community which consisted primarily of retired people, there were absolutely no accomodations for people without cars. Even delivery at the local supermarket was completely unheard of. While her friends were extremely helpful and bent over backwards to help, for my mother, being a fiercely independent person, losing the ability to drive made her feel helpless. So she moved the heck out of there, back to Chicago where she now leads a perfectly independent life.

I'm going to talk more about cars and what to do about them in the next few posts but right now I'm going to bed, good night!

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